April 2, 2014

Jane Goodall addresses accusations of plagiarism


Jane Goodall © Attila JANDI, via Shutterstock

Jane Goodall
© Attila JANDI, via Shutterstock

Last year, the Washington Post’s Steven Levingston reported that noted primatologist Jane Goodall had plagiarized significant chunks of her then-upcoming book, Seeds of Hope, co-written with editor Gail Hudson. The numerous passages in question caused Grand Central Publishing to delay publication (initially reported by Hillel Italie of the Associated Press) for a full year — initially scheduled for April 2 of last year, it’s only just been released this week.

Goodall responded at the time, apologizing for not citing her sources, but since then she hasn’t talked about the issue at any length. This week she broke her silence in an interview with Henry Nicholls for Mosaic, once again regretful but maintaining that she never intended to pass off others’ work as her own.

It’s a long interview, by no means focused on the plagiarism controversy (Nicholls says upfront that he didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up early in the process). Goodall talks about her childhood and early research, her efforts to engineer improvements to the London Zoo, the stuffed monkey that accompanies her everywhere she goes, and the precarious state of wildlife sanctuaries she helped to establish in Africa, which she worries might not be safe anymore.

Nicholls does eventually ask Goodall about the accusations over Seeds of Hope. She blames her chaotic style of working for not having citations for what Levingston described as “at least a dozen passages borrowed without attribution, or footnotes, from a variety of websites” including Wikipedia, and ranging from shorter phrases to a full paragraph. Goodall tells Nicholls, “I am not methodical enough, I guess.”

Not exactly comforting words coming from a person whose reputation is based on her decades of research. She further explains:

In some cases, you look at my notebooks, there’s no way you can tell whether this is from talking to somebody or whether it was something I read on the internet… In the future, I shall be more organised even if I don’t have time. I shall certainly make sure I know who said something or what I read or where I read it.

None of this makes Goodall seem particularly malicious; it’s perfectly human to be a bit scattered and get hectic in taking notes, particularly if you’re passionate about the subject matter. But any student who’s so much as turned in a paper for school knows that you can’t be taking ideas and conclusions from other people without giving credit for them.

Goodall’s promise to be more mindful of documenting sources in the future is fine, but you would think that it would have occurred to her (not to mention her co-author and other people who worked on the book) at some point in career — which spans 45 years and  13 books, not including the children’s books she’s written — before now.


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.